Just as Beatlemania had taken hold in the United States in February 1964 so, too, had British youth been working themselves up into a frenzy of anticipation at the prospect of Bob Dylan’s first British concert at the Royal Albert Hall on the 9 May 1965.
Earlier in the day my friend Sarah and I had met up with the singer, Donovan, in Hyde Park, opposite the Royal Albert Hall. We had sat and chatted with him about his upcoming tour of the States. Sarah had asked him to dress up in an Edwardian suit with a view to photographing him against the backdrop of the Albert Memorial. In the end she decided to photograph me alongside him, my hair piled on top of my head, dressed in a long black floral print dress, holding a parasol. Unknown to either Sarah or me at the time, the photograph was then blown up by Donovan’s press agents in the United States and used as the poster for his U.S tour later in the year, which was being kicked off by an appearance, alongside Dylan, at the Newport Folk Festival in July.
Later that night the Royal Albert Hall was packed. Thousands of young fans, unable to obtain tickets, hung around outside desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of their idol or, better still, approach him for his autograph. Sadly for them, they would all end up bitterly disappointed. Although the predicted summer rain never fell to dampen their spirits, the atmosphere among the crowds, so hopeful earlier on in the evening became more and more despondent as the rumour spread swiftly through the lines that Dylan had been spirited into the Hall under their very noses. They had some brief consolation when, unexpectedly, they caught a glimpse of the Beatles and Donovan showing up for the concert but they, too, were prevented from talking to their fans as over-zealous security guards whisked them swiftly inside the Hall.
Sarah and I were privileged. We had been given complimentary tickets, both for the concert and for backstage where we had arranged to interview Dylan for the US pop magazine, “Hullabaloo”.
Dylan was late so Peter, Paul and Mary, the warm-up group, who often travelled with him, remained on stage far longer than planned waiting for him to appear.
They went through their whole repertoire of songs, including “Puff the Magic Dragon”, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”. Everyone sang along with them but all were eagerly anticipating the young poet / singer/ songwriter who, more than anyone else, epitomized the hopes, dreams and angst of their generation.
As the evening progressed, the audience, though respectful of the group, was fast becoming disenchanted. They had paid money to see Dylan, now they were doubtful he was even going to put in an appearance. Disenchantment soon turned to anger as people started hissing, booing and whistling. Amidst this racket, totally unnoticed, the diminuitive figure of Bob Dylan made his hesitant way onto the stage. He approached Peter, Paul and Mary and they whispered among themselves. Discreetly the trio moved to the sidelines, leaving Dylan entirely alone on stage. The hissing and booing continued, loudly at first and then, gradually, subsiding as it suddenly dawned on the fans that the lone figure standing out on stage in front of them, drowned in the light of the powerfully high megawatt bulbs, might just be that of Bob Dylan himself.
Dylan’s hands were over his ears, protecting them from the noise that, from his central location within the Hall, must have seemed almost overwhelming. He gave the impression of being very nervous. In a halting, breaking voice that sounded like he was about to burst into tears, he pleaded with the crowd. “Please don’t. Please don’t do that to me!”
The audience was shamed into an abrupt silence. Slowly they began to clap. Someone stood up and, within seconds, the whole auditorium was on its feet, clapping and cheering. This, after all, late or not, was the person they had come to listen to. This was their hero. This was Bob Dylan.
Dylan raised his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the strong lights. He looked very small and very vulnerable. He cleared his throat as his backing band, the Hawks, struck up the familiar opening notes to “Mr. Tambourine Man”. The crowd was now almost hysterical. Dylan opened his mouth and the crowd fell reverently silent. But nothing could be heard. The words, it seemed, had failed him. There was a horrified intake of breath by the audience as it became increasingly obvious that something inconceivable had happened – Dylan had forgotten the words to one of his most famous songs. It was a moment of pure drama. The audience remained silent in shocked disbelief. But then, disappointed and impatient, they started booing, at first gently and then more loudly. Dylan visibly shaken, winced with fear. Perhaps he had never before experienced how fickle an audience can be.
One by one the members of the Hawks stopped playing. Dylan conferred with them for a moment, then made a second attempt. This time it was not clear to anyone whether he was actually singing the words or merely mumbling along to the music. The audience began to get edgy again, some starting a slow handclap.
“Please, don’t do that,” he repeated softly, almost sobbing “please don’t do that to me.”
Dylan gave the impression of being very frightened indeed, whether it was just a bad case of stage nerves, or whether there was a more serious reason behind it was unclear. But it was hard not to feel sorry for him. He looked so alone, defenceless and exposed on that huge stage.
He finally got through the evening somehow and, despite the fact, that we and a few other hopeful journalists were supposed to interview him, he was discreetly spirited away as furtively as he had arrived, in the company of the Beatles and Donovan.
When Sarah and I went backstage we too were disappointed. Opening Dylan’s dressing room door we were faced with an empty room. But Peter, Paul and Mary, who we had met several times in New York already, agreed to be interviewed instead.
They explained that they had long been friends of Dylan and had appeared at many political rallies with him, particularly the March on Washington in the summer of ‘63. Dylan had written many songs specifically for them, including their huge hit, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”
When asked what had gone wrong that night they explained it away as nerves.
“He was so excited about this concert,” Mary Travers said, “but I think it was just too much for him. He’s a very private person, you know.”
“He’s primarily a songwriter,” Peter Yarrow chipped in, “he’s not really a performer. He’s very shy in public.”
Curiously enough history was to repeat itself just two months later, as Bob Dylan was booed offstage at the Newport Folk Festival. And, many years later, my daughter Mayumi found herself on a modeling assignment with Donovan’s son, Donovan Leitch. She was able to tell him, “My mother and your father modeled together in 1965, in Hyde Park, in front of the Albert Memorial just before the Dylan concert”. And Donovan Leitch smiled at her and said, “I know that poster well. I always wondered who the girl was!”